Principal Autonomy and Expertise in the Pursuit of Improvement

Year: 2021

Author: Heffernan, Amanda

Type of paper: Symposium

School principals hold a certain set of experiences and expertise. Policy shifts in Australian public schools are moving towards increased autonomy for principals so that they can make decisions that meet their school community’s context and local needs. At the same time, however, discourses and policies designed to steer schools from a distance tend to increase alongside notions of autonomy. The subsequent result is that principals make decisions within a relatively narrow frame, which does not always reflect local context and needs. This paper draws on a national study of principals' work in Australian public secondary schools, comprised of a survey of 172 principals and 63 interviews with principals, senior education leaders, and principals’ associations. The paper aims to explore the way principals’ expertise – and the importance of local priorities - are being sidelined by externally-mandated targets and areas of focus. Importantly, this has implications for principals’ workload and their sense of themselves as leaders. Some participants conveyed frustration at expectations of compliance and reductions in what they saw as their ability to be creative, think differently, or lead in ways that addressed issues of equity and social justice. The enactment of autonomy itself was an area where some principals were advantaged over others – principals in marginalised school communities and principals who had less advantageous places in the local hierarchy felt more constrained than their colleagues in more advantaged schools. The sense of restricted practices then has significant implications for school communities and can potentially exacerbate opportunity gaps for young people, reflecting research that suggests marginalised school communities are more likely to be micro-managed and held to account for measurable outcomes. The project findings offer possibilities for ways of working that value and recognise principals’ expertise and the importance of local contexts. This paper highlights the different approaches taken by principals in exercising their autonomy, concluding that there is scope for principals and education systems to rethink the work of leadership into the future.